The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan

watch-iconThis The Gift of the Magi lesson plan packet has taken me years to compile!

“The Gift of the Magi” is without a doubt one of my favorite short stories, especially for the Christmas season. I’ve been teaching it to my students for years, and now I’ve compiled 15 different “The Gift of the Magi” lesson plans, activities, and resources for you. It’s 108 pages of activities, handouts and worksheets that cover vocabulary, irony, the moral of the story, character analysis, close reading, critical reading skills, and a lot more. The packet even includes some assessment materials. Each resource comes with comprehensive teacher notes and answer keys.

Isn’t “The Gift of the Magi” Too Difficult for ESL Students?

The story itself is actually very simple:

hair-comb1A husband and wife are very much in love with each other. The wife has very beautiful hair that she loves very much. The husband has a pocket watch that he loves very much. They want to buy very nice Christmas presents for each other, but they don’t have much money. So, the wife sells her hair to get money. and buys a chain for the watch. Unfortunately, the husband sells his watch to buy the woman beautiful combs for her hair. Each one gives up the thing they love for the other one. While tragic, the story proves that the couple love each more than anything.

It’s a beautiful and touching story, a perfect example of how situational irony can work. But we don’t often do it in class, because it’s a difficult story. But it’s difficult for only two reasons, both of which I’ve addressed in my packet.:

  1. The references: There are references to things that may be unfamiliar to a modern-day student, especially one from another country. There are also allusions to the Bible and other sources in the story that students may not be familiar with. That’s why I’ve provided a lightly graded text with footnotes to explain the more obscure references and early 20th century items. This lesson pack also includes warm-up activities to get at the main theme and explain the references to the magi.
  2. The vocabulary: Let’s face it. O. Henry was a wordsmith and this story has a lot of words that are off the 200 most frequently used lists and the AWL. That’s why I’ve included:
  • A master list of those hard words for your reference.
  • More importantly, a fun quick vocab match to teach hair comb, pocket watch, watch chain, and gift.
  • There’s also an extensive vocabulary learning lesson plan which focuses on 24 words that students may not know, but which are fairly easy to explain, such as butcher and howl and platinum. Students use social learning methods to learn the meanings and then do a series of flashcard games to review them.
  • There’s also a lesson plan on predicting the meaning of difficult words in context, including figuring out how much you need to know about a word to follow the story. Keep students from looking up every single word they don’t know!
  • Finally a critical reading skills lesson models reading for the gist, focusing on words you do know and grasping the main idea without knowing every word.


What Does This The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan Packet include?

  • The original version of the story, untouched and unabridged. (From the Gutenberg Project-text in the public domain)
  • The graded version, with some of the tougher vocabulary and turns of phrase simplified as well as explanatory footnotes for the more antiquated or obscure references.
  • A brief one-paragraph summary and a scene-by-scene guide to the text that students could read as a simplified easy-to-read version.
  • A word association warm-up where students brainstorm on the word “Gift”
  • A quick vocab pre-teach activity to teach gift, pocket watch, watch chain, and hair comb. If students don’t picture the right kind of comb, the story can fall flat.
  • Predicting vocabulary words meaning from context lesson plan.
  • An extensive set of vocabulary activities to pre-teach 24 key words from the text.
  • A thematic warm up on the moral of the story and the meaning of the magi. Students read the last paragraph closely and discuss the moral of the story. I love to start the lesson this way so that students can see the broader picture as they read.
  • An alternate warm-up where students discuss what a wise gift is and compare wise things to valuable things. This gets at the heart of the theme of the story.
  • A lesson on modelling critical reading skills, including ways of getting the gist of a story without knowing every word, lessons on forming questions and predicting as you read, and an unknown vocabulary prediction worksheet.
  • Extensive comprehension questions to guide reading. There’s also a “Find the Phrase” activity to help students find examples of common themes in the story.
  • Worksheet on the Scene to highlight the way the author sets the scene and establishes that Jim and Della are poor, but love each other very much.
  • Character Study Sheets for Jim and Della, plus a fun creative activity to retell the story through another character’s eyes.
  •  A complete lesson on situational irony including what it is, how it works, and how it differs from coincidence or bad luck.
  • Discussion Questions for students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.
  • Practice doing exegesis or deep passage analysis on selected quotations from the story.
  • A set of essay and Creative Writing Topics
  • Assessment tools in the form of various quizzes and tests, all in open-answer and multiple choice form.

This packet is designed for maximum flexibility and adaptability. Go through the whole packet and spend a week on this text alone. Or pick and choose the activities you like best. Follow the order of the packet for a great unit on this classic story. Or put together your own The Gift of the Magi lesson plan from the 15 activities included.

For a long preview, go to the Teachers Pay Teachers page and check it out for yourself.





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Thanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities

from eyehook.comGetting ready for Thanksgiving? Here are some of the lesson plans I like to use to teach Turkey Day.

  • The Food Lesson Plan gives students a chance to talk about their national food, then gives you a chance to discuss Thanksgiving and the traditional foods we eat on that holiday. Finally students get talk about their special holiday meals. It’s a great way to approach Thanksgiving with international students because they may not know a lot about this primarily American holiday, but they do know how to talk about food. It’s also a topic that is accessible to advanced, intermediate and beginner students.
  •  My A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving lesson plan is another great activity. The video does a great job of introducing the pilgrims and the Native Americans, the first thanksgiving, the religious side of this holiday, as well as turkey and mashed potatoes, and even the football game! You can also have fun introducing the Peanuts characters and plot items like Linus’ blanket, Sally’s crush on Linus, and Lucy always pulling away that football. I’ve designed two worksheets: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Comprehension Questions that can help students keep up as they watch or test how much they retained. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Summary is a guide for teachers that summarizes the major “chapters” of the movie and some words or phrases or slang that students may have trouble with. You can use it to break the viewing into parts, or to pre-teach some vocab you think students might need to know. Or ask students to make their own outline of the video and then compare it to your outline.
  • Finally another original lesson plan I love that introduces persuasive writing to Thanksgiving is Turkey Writing by Boggles World ESL. Students imagine they are a turkey on Thanksgiving and must come up with good reasons why they shouldn’t be eaten!
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Parallel Structure

This lesson plan helps students discover and notice parallel structure in phrases and then use it particularly with correlative conjunctions such as both, either, neither and not only…but also. Because this is a pretty straightforward point that students need to practice more than anything else, this is pretty practice heavy with lots of activities and games.


Students will be able to write more effective sentences.


  • Students will be able to use parallel structure correctly at the word, phrase and clause levels.
  • Students will practice using correlative conjunctions.


Warm Up

This is taken from Fun with Grammar by Sue Woodward (or download it chapter by chapter free here). Break students into pairs. Give partner A a piece of paper that says: My father is tall, kind, and intelligent. Give partner B a piece of paper that says: My father is tall, does kind things and his intelligence is high. Give them one minute to memorize the sentence. Then have them turn the paper over or scrunch it up and tell their partner the sentence.

In general, partners A will find it easier. Ask them why it was easy to remember the sentence. You’ll probably get that it was short and that the words were similar. Tell them that sentence A was written in parallel structure and that it makes their writing easier to remember and easier to understand!


Hand out the Parallelism Discovery Activity to the groups (or let them get into double pairs). Let them look at the examples of parallel structure and note that the sentences on the left are parallel. They are also easier to understand and sound nicer. It’s worth going over this and showing them how they are parallel. I like to put the sentences on the board or on a projector and elicit the parts of speech so students get it.

Points to emphasize:

  1. We use it with conjunctions: AND, BUT, OR, NOT and EITHER..OR, BOTH..AND, NEITHER..NOR, NOT ONLY…BUT ALSO or any place we are making a list.
  2. There is no right answer as to which form to use: I like to swim and sail is just as good as I like swimming and sailing.
  3. Anything that follows the coordinating conjunctions should be parallel Either X or X.
  4. Formal English is concise. Elminate as many words as possible.
  5. Parallelism is a stylistic thing, not a grammar thing. In other words, it’s not WRONG not to use it but it makes their writing and speaking better.


I like this online quiz if your workbook doesn’t have a similar basic highly controlled practice. Then I like to pull out the Complicated Parallel Practice and do a few as a class. These are more complicated sentences than I like ice cream, but I find that can help build confidence.

Depending on how it is going, I might give them the  Either…Or Discovery to emphasize the point. And then tell them the principles remain the same for Neither…Nor, Both…and, and Not only…But also. Except for verb agreement–Both…And is always plural. I then give them the Either…Or/Neither..Nor Cards and have them create sentences in groups for each card. To review, have each group write two sentences on the board and go over the sentences as a class–anonymously, of course.

Not Only…But Also

I like to go over this construction separately as students are often confused by it. I start by putting up these sentences on the board. I ask students what they mean and elicit that it means both are true. I then point out that there is a nuance. What follows not only is something expected or something good. What follows but also is amazing!

  • My father not only cooks well but he also owns a French restaurant!
  • Mohammed owns not only one Mustang but also three Ferraris!
  • Learning English is not only fun, but also useful for work!

As a class, go over why the second part is more exciting or amazing than the first part and underline the parallel structures.

Then put up on the board: I like coffee. I like tea.

As a class, turn it into a sentence with Not only…but also.

Then do the same with: Xiang hasn’t been studying. He hasn’t been working!

Sentence Auction

Finally I do the  Sentence Auction: Parallel Structure as a fun review.

Students are put into pairs.

They write 5 sentences, one each with “either or” “neither nor” “not only but also” “both and” AND parallel structure.

There should be 3 sentences with a mistake! On purpose!

This will produce 5 sentences per every two students or 2.5 sentences per student.

Take the 20 best ones and put them in random order on a sheet of paper. Hand out to students in groups.

Students will bid on the sentences. The team that buys the most correct sentences and the fewest incorrect sentences wins.

Students have $200 to spend and all spending is in increments of ten.
Remind students that in an auction you can trick the other students into buying bad sentences by bidding on them.

Ties are determined by who has the most money left over!

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First Conditional Lesson

This is also another 30 Goals post: Goal 7: Share a Lesson. I kinda sorta already did that with an old lesson plan but here’s a new one I wrote and taught for my MA TESOL program. I’m sharing it to get feedback on it, as always. The lesson is not very flashy or creative. The goal of the assignment was to sort of focus on grammar sequencing, moving from controlled to guided to free activities. I also wanted to incorporate more noticing into the lesson because I think that’s really important. So here is a simple, 90-odd minute long lesson plan for upper beginners or lower intermediates which I hope is also a frame for other grammar lesson plas:

 First Conditional Lesson Plan

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Design Your Living Room

This lesson teaches or reviews the names of living room furniture by getting students to design their perfect living room. It could easily be adapted to other rooms in the house as well.

This lesson teaches or reviews the names of living room furniture by getting students to design their perfect living room. It could easily be adapted to other rooms in the house as well.


Warm Up

Either print out the Living Room Furniture Quiz or have students take it online. Make sure they know the vocabulary of living room furniture. Activate vocabulary by asking them what other items they have in their living room.

Let’s Go Shopping

Now hand out the Living Room Floor Plan [PDF] and have students add a door (1 meter wide) and 3 windows (1/2 meter wide each) to the plan anywhere they want. Make sure they understand the scale, that each dotted line is 1 meter. This is important because it puts realistic limits on how they furnish the room. You can’t put a bookcase in front of a window, or the TV in the door.

Once students have done that tell them they have $450 to spend to furnish the living room. They should use the Price List which also tells them how big each piece of furniture is. You may also want to redo the prices in your home currency or make them realistic for where you live. You also might want to add items that are common in your country, or take away items that are not common.

When they are finished, each student can present his living room to the other students and explain his choices.

Alternatively, you could now practice vocabulary and prepositions by having students describe their living room to a partner. The partner should try to draw the living room without looking at the picture. After one partner has described and the other has drawn the room, they should switch.This will give students a chance to practice the names of furniture and also prepositions like, “next to”, “on the right”, “in the middle”, “on the wall.” In fact you may want to give them this language first, using one of the students’ drawing as an example. Another variation, which gives you more control would be to have a few students describe their living room to the entire class and everyone draws it. That allows you to catch mistakes as they happen.

You can also practice comparing and contrasting language by having students compare their living rooms. For example:
“I put the sofa in the corner.”
“Well, I put MY sofa in the middle of the wall”
“My TV is across from the armchair.”
“My TV is next to the armchair.”
Students then report back: “My sofa is in the corner but his sofa is in the middle of the wall.”

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More Inspiration: A Good Course is…

I’ll state my own criteria for a good language course or lesson now. A good lesson or course, to me, is one where there’s plenty of language learning going on and where the students and I:

  • feel comfortable physically, socially and psychologically

Following up on Goal 5, I found this gem in the book I’m currently reading, Tessa Woodward, Planning Lessons and Courses from Cambridge University Press, 2001.

I’ll state my own criteria for a good language course or lesson now. A good lesson or course, to me, is one where there’s plenty of language learning going on and where the students and I:

  • feel comfortable physically, socially and psychologically
  • know a little about each other, why we are together and what we want to get out of the experience. (We also know these things may keep shifting slightly as we go through the course.)
  • are aware of some of what there is to learn
  • are aware of some of the things we have learned
  • have a notion about how we learn best
  • accept that language is a mixture of things (part instinct, motor skill, system, cultural artefact, music, part vehicle for content and part content itself), that it changes all the time and thus that we need to teach and learn it in a variety of ways
  • know why we’re doing the activities we’re doing
  • do things in class that would be worth doing and learn things that are worth learning for their own sake outside the language classroom
  • become more capable of taking the initiative, making decisions and judging what is good and useful
  • start useful habits which will continue after we have left each other
  • follow our course and lesson plans or depart from them when necessary in order to bring about the criteria above.

These are some of the things that are necessary for me to consider a course or lesson good, for me to consider my work good!

I couldn’t agree more. I particularly like the stress on making students aware themselves of how they learn and why classroom time is spent the way it is.

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Lesson Plan Contests Galore

Just a few lesson plan competitions I became aware of recently. Thought I’d share.

TED wants you! to nominate educators, come onboard as an animator or propose a lesson plan based on their talks.

Tailor Made English believes teachers are nothing more than the blind leading the blind. The ultimate dogmé challenge-a lesson plan for students in the dark. The winner gets $50 at or equivalent. Nice!

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If you haven’t seen post by Jason Renshaw, definitely check it out for ideas on making coursebooks more flexible and giving students and teachers more choice. The comments are great as well.

I put my vision for a flexible text in the comments, but to reiterate here, I would love to have an electronic textbook (seems to me it could be a CD-ROM or a web-based service) that allowed you to plugin what you want to do for your lesson: i.e.
Level: Pre-Int
Area: Vocab
Skill: writing
Theme: Cities
and have it spit out the appropriate materials. But the next teacher, whose class has the vocab down but needs grammar help, could seek basically the same lesson, but with the materials designed to practice grammar rather than vocab.

When I do design my own materials, or seek out other people’s lesson plans, it’s usually because I feel my students need a certain kind of practice. Often it’s because the text is lacking something that my particular class needs. Maybe I already did the book section on past simple, but my students need more practice pronouncing “-ed” (In Kazakhstan they tend to go Lawrence Olivier on “-ed” and make it into an extra syllable, “wAlk-Ed”). Or maybe the way prepositions of place are presented in the book isn’t intensive enough, or doesn’t really relate to the theme of the lesson, so I want a better presentation in a specific context.

But my colleague down the hall, working with the same text, has different problems. His class has perfect pronunciation but can’t remember which verbs are regular in the past and which aren’t so he needs a good old-fashioned worksheet that makes them conjugate verbs over and over. It would be awesome to have a text that could produce the same basic lesson but with different kinds of materials to adjust to different classes and students.

If you added the ability of students to choose what kind of homework they want to do, that would be brillant. For example, a student has just completed unit 1. He or she goes home, logins in to the e-text and has a choice of homework that provides practice in writing or reading or listening, grammar or vocab, idioms or standard English…

Now this is more or less what a lot of textbooks try to do. They try to give you a lot of materials in different forms that hang together more or less coherently and as a teacher your job is to pick and choose. But in order to provide materials to suit everyone everywhere, the text would have to be massive. And there are a lot of the reasons why teachers don’t pick and choose: the “textbook-must-be-followed” culture that affects teachers, students, administrators and parents alike, lack of time, lack of ability (maybe) but most likely lack of confidence. And the feeling that a course should have some kind of coherent structure, something going through the book provides.

A textbook that is cheaper to publish because it’s online or on a disk and that allows teachers to customize materials while still being based on one syllabus seems like an ideal solution.

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April Fools Day

This isn’t a proper lesson plan but I put together a little webquest for students on April Fools Day. The answers also make a nice set of hoaxes, jokes and pranks to talk about for an April Fools’ Day lesson.

Feel free to use it, or add comments, suggestions and crtitiques: April Fools’ Day WebQuest And I forgot to link to the Answers earlier (which are also linked to on the webquest page itself.

Or have students do their own webquests. Refer them to Hoaxipedia or the Wikipedia entry on April Fools’ Day and have them come up with their own questions to challenge each other.

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